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Puntland Cracks Down on Somali, Foreign Outlet Journalists

Map of the Puntland region of Somalia
Map of the Puntland region of Somalia

Press freedom advocates are awaiting a reply from the president of Puntland, Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, to accusations of harassment, censorship, detentions, and direct attacks by police officers. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent a letter to protest what it called the autonomous northeastern Somali state’s targeting of U.S. government-funded Voice of America journalists and others, who have been jailed, shot at, knocked off the airwaves, and threatened by Puntland’s information ministry and local police officials.

The complaint was filed following the release of VOA Somali Service correspondent Mohamed Yasin Isak, who was held without charge for 17 days at the Puntland Intelligence Services in the port city of Bossasso. Isak was freed on Wednesday.

Commitee to Protect Journalists
Commitee to Protect Journalists

CPJ Africa program coordinator Tom Rhodes explains that the year-long pattern of harassment stems from government objections to hard-working, professional reporters delivering frank coverage of a very sensitive political environment.

“One of the reasons I think that the VOA reporters in the Somali Service have been targeted in particular has been because they have been doing an excellent job. Frankly, they’ve been quite critical, both of the government and the opposition parties. And furthermore, they’ve focused on very sensitive stories. There have been a number of political assassinations of high-ranking officials in Puntland last year, and one can suspect they didn’t like that press,” he said.

Isak was briefly detained last August along with Radio Galkayo reporter Abdullahi Hersi after disclosing allegations that the son of a former governor was involved in a killing. Isak was ordered to stop working for the Voice of America, which is quite active in the gulf region. But Rhodes indicates the Somali journalist stood up to authorities.

“The impression I get from talking to him and other reporters in the area is that Mohammed Yasin is a fairly brave and professional reporter, and he simply just didn’t take the threats,” said Rhodes.

Two months later, Puntland’s information ministry retaliated further by ordering FM stations not to air VOA reports for one week, and he repeated orders to Isak and two other VOA correspondents, Abdulkadir Mohamed and Nuh Muse to stop what it called their unobjective reporting from the region. The shutdown lasted for one week until the journalists bounced back.

VOA Somali Service broadcasts serve Puntland, Somaliland, Somalia, and the Arabian peninsula.
VOA Somali Service broadcasts serve Puntland, Somaliland, Somalia, and the Arabian peninsula.

But in November, police shot at least 15 rounds at Isak’s car at a Galkayo checkpoint, wounding him in the left arm. The gunfire followed verbal threats at a meeting of local journalists from local police commander Colonel Muse Ahmed Muse Hasasi. Then, in December, Radio Galkayo Director Hassan Jama narrowly missed being hit by two bullets fired by an unidentified officer at Galkayo Airport. Rhodes says both Isak and Jama survived their shooting ordeals.

“When they shot at Mohamed Yasin’s car, one of the bullets, I believe, went through the left side of his rib cage near his left arm. And in the case of Jama, he said that two bullets actually went through his trouser legs. So there was clearly an intent to kill him, but they both managed to survive and now that we’ve had Yasin released, they’re both relatively okay, but obviously shook up,” he said.

So far, there has been no reply to the CPJ allegations from President Farole, but Rhodes notes there have been reports that Puntland officials are looking into last month’s shooting of Radio Galkayo director Hassan Jama, even though no one has yet been apprehended for the crime.

Puntland’s strategic northen location has made the Somali-linked state a prized post for journalists covering not only Somalia’s national unity struggle, but also the geopolitical encounters of the Arabian peninsula, and the operations of Somali pirates who also operate nearby.